Native among the herbs: Monarda fistulosa

One of my favourite native wildflowers is Monarda fistulosa, wild bergamot. It’s the slightly plainer sister of the showy red-flowered herb M. didyma or bee-balm. M. fistulosa produces lavender-coloured flowers and is called wild bergamot because the whole plant smells like a bergamot orange. This fruit is hardly familiar to North Americans except as the flavour of Earl Grey tea. Anyone who uses essential oils has likely come across bergamot oil.

One of the reasons I have a soft spot for M. fistulosa, is that it was the first native plant I ever grew from seed, and it happened almost by accident. As a teenager I began collecting native wildflower seeds and trying to germinate them. Mostly they proved a challenge for me as a novice horticulturalist.

I came across a dried out seed head in the vacant lot beside my house and collected some seeds, not knowing what it was. They germinated more easily than anything else I had tried. When the plant finally bloomed the following year, it turned out to be a wildflower I had never noticed before. Its ring of delicate florets formed a distinct coronet. But having grown M. didyma in my herb garden, I immediately recognized wild bergamot for what it was. Besides, it has the square stem distinctive of the mint family, which includes a large proportion of familiar culinary and medicinal herbs.

The plant in the photo above is not directly descended from the one I grew as a teenager. But I did germinate this one from purchased seed about five years ago.

Wild bergamot’s flavour is a little less intense, a little greener, a little wilder than that of domesticated bee-balm. I like to add a few leaves to my morning pot of green tea. Native pollinators love the flowers.

I’ve decided to dedicate more space to herbs in the garden this year. Well, not exactly in the garden. I’ve planted the main collection in four plastic barrels by the front porch, formerly occupied by tomatoes and peppers. Tarragon, thyme, lavender and wild bergamot survived the winter. Parsley and dill are already volunteering. New lemon verbena, oregano, sage, marjoram, rosemary, pineapple sage and some other plants came from the nursery. Meanwhile, chocolate mint will prefer the shady back patio, where chervil sprouting between the bricks and is ready to bloom white sprays any day now. There’s enough peppermint growing wild in the creek behind our house to supply the entire neighbourhood, though I suppose hardly anybody knows it’s there.

Sadly, I made the choice to dig up and discard lovage. It’s another one of my favourite herbs, with an intense celery flavour for soups. But the monstrous plant has no place in my small raised vegetable bed any longer, and the deep taproot won’t adapt to container living. Besides, it breeds discontentment, making me long for a bigger yard.

Many, many herbs are well suited to container gardening and small spaces, so let’s make the most of them. This herb garden is taking shape. It reminds me of the one I planted as a teenager. Herbs have played a subtle but important role throughout my life, with their savour, richness and hint of magic. Most are immigrants from the Old World, with ancient lineages barely decipherable.

But not wild bergamot. It grew from the same soil as me, and I met it there. It has a softer, more polite stature than cultivated bee-balm. In fact it holds a distinctly Canadian posture beside the Mediterranean oregano and very English lavender that will share its barrel this summer.

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